Since the first attack took place in 2002, the military use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones has increased dramatically and it is currently one of the most popular target elimination techniques. Armed forces are successfully using satellite controlled drones to launch attacks and remotely eliminate threats; but to what end? Is it legal, ethical, or even wise to utilize these killing machines? This article aims to tackle the issue and address the moral and ethical implications of military UAVs.
For Military UAVs
The main target behind the development of drone technology is to eventually eliminate the endangerment of human lives in military warfare. Ever since the start of drone warfare, drone effectiveness and accuracy have been drastically improved through research and development. For example, between January 2012 and July 2013 there were about 65 drone strikes in Pakistan that resulted in the death of at least 308 people. The civilian casualty rate was estimated at less than 1.5 percent, this speaks for the colossal technological leap in a drone’s ability to discriminate between a civilian and the intended target. This can be compared to the Russian aerial strikes on Syria within the last years which have taken an approximate number of 3600 lives. Of those casualties, 1400 were said to be civilians and that gives a civilian casualty rate of around 40 percent.
Drone popularity has increased substantially because they are now the cheaper alternative when compared to conventional military air strikes. The operating cost of a drone averages at about 1500 USD per flight hour, whereas the operating cost of a military aircraft such as the F-35 which would cost around 32,000 USD per hour. Consequently, increasing the use of drones will inevitably lead to a reduction in the military’s capital expenditure. This would also allow the government to divert their resources towards other issues such as health care and education. Even when considering the manufacturing costs of these warfare systems, the drones are clearly cheaper than other military aircraft such as the F-35 mentioned above.
Considering the ethical side of this problem, drone strikes are legal under international law. Article 51 of the UN Charter provides for a nation’s inherent right to self-defense when it has been attacked. This article is only valid if the targeted state agrees to the use of force in its territory, or the targeted group operating within its territory was responsible for an act of aggression against the targeting state where the host state is unwilling or unable to control the threat themselves. This law has always been abided by when scheduling drone strikes in order to avoid unnecessary friction between the two states involved.
The use of drone warfare is known to make the users feel safer than traditional warfare. In the case of the military the drones are launched from close proximity and controlled from considerably great distances, such as from neighboring countries or even overseas, giving the military a greater sense of comfort which is not affordable to ground troops. Drone warfare also makes civilians safer as they are conscious of lower likelihood of casualty in drone warfare
All in all, the elimination of key targets which threaten national security SHOULD be dealt with by drones in order to minimize collateral damage.
Against Military UAVs
The foundational tenet of war explained in jus in bello prohibits attacks ‘which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects’. By the principle of war proportionality, the damage incurred from military attacks limits the degree to which civilians are subjected to inflictive circumstances during war, as collateral damage.
Nevertheless, when putting the ability and precision of the drones to distinguish between military and civilians under the microscope, military UAVs have shown to fail repetitively. According to meta-data studies almost 17% of all people killed in drone strikes are civilians. A recent event underlined the erroneous nature of these attacks took place on the 3rd of October 2015 in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The attack on the city’s hospital resulted in the death of 22 doctors and patients. US officials have blamed their horrendous targeting error on malfunctioning electronics as well as human error. The actual target was a Taliban compound located more than 500 meters away.
Those opposing UAV’s have constantly raised the issue of the PlayStation mentality developed by drone pilots. This technology has eliminated the human aspect of war as the soldiers no longer perceive their targets as humans when they “kill by a remote control”. Since the UAV’s have added a video game feel to the attacks, soldiers no longer appreciate the moral value of life. However, after they realize the seriousness of their actions, drone pilots regularly experience PTSD. According to a study of 709 drone pilots, approximately 8.2% reported at least on adverse mental health outcome, most commonly disorders related to adjusting to re-entry into civilian society, depression and relationship problems.
Reciprocating the attack is the normal reaction for any group of people who have witnessed their innocent loved ones inflicted by a UAV strike. This provides the exact propaganda extremists use for recruitment to continue the endless blood cycle. Judging on the morality of this argument, one can say that it is acceptable for a pained individual to do so and engage in ‘post-heroic warfare’; wouldn’t that bring to life the imaginary vendetta between the parties?
Who, why, when and how the targeting is executed raises various legal issues. Despite the fact that drones do not violate international law by violating the air space of other countries if permission from the government is granted. However, this is not often the case. The US’s continuous drone strikes on Pakistan have led the PM Nawaz Sharif to state that the “use of drones is a continued violation of our territorial integrity”. In addition, drones regularly violate international law since the targets are often suspects of no imminent threat which makes it illegal to attack them using lethal power. Amnesty International therefore classify drone attacks as war crimes.
51: Mazen Seifo, Kanjo Melo, Giorgos Marinou, Abdalla Seoud